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Short Term Pains for Long Term Gains

Discussion in the Bayside West: Yokohama forum
Short Term Pains for Long Term Gains
[Note: I wrote this article for the January 2012 edition of the quarterly Baseball Magazine (2012 Vol. 36 No. 1, ISBN 4910079150123-00952). While it came out in print in mid-November, 2011, it was written at the beginning of October, before the end of the season. This is my original manuscript which had some editorial changes in the translation. For example, the title was changed to 「東京ドームの誕生が野球を変えたように、新たな可能性を秘める統一球の継続」 or "The Birth of Tokyo Dome Changed Baseball, Continuing with the Unified Ball Holds a New Hidden Potential."]

On the morning of September 27, 2011, I opened up my newspaper to find the Giants' head chairman, Watanabe Tsuneo, going off on a rant about the new unified ball causing a drop in attendance.
"And what about the unified ball? ... From the spectators and fans point of view baseball is to be seen, that's the industry. From a commercial base perspective, it's the areal game that is more interesting. ... We're losing spectators. And it's all because of the unified ball that everything is going down, it seems." [1]
[Actual quote:「統一球ってのはどうだ?... 観客、ファンから見れば野球見物、これは商業だよ。コマーシャルベースで見れば、空中戦の方がおもしろいんだよ。... 観客が減ってるんだよ。統一球のために減ってるんじゃないのかねぇ。」]
Umm. Watanabe-kaicho. Have you been reading about the Japanese economy of late? I think that if you just browse the Yomiuri Newspaper's finance section that you may come to understand why there is a drop in attendance. However, I'm not interested in discussing the economy here, and I'll just focus on baseball.

So, I would like to start off by going back in time a couple of decades to 1988. A particular event happened that year that changed the course of Japanese baseball. Tokyo Dome opened.[2] But more to the point of what I am getting at, home runs for the Giants decreased significantly.

In 1987 (昭和62年), their final year at Korakuen Kyujyo, the Giants hit 159 home runs, tied for 2nd in the league with Yakult at Jingu, both behind Chunichi's 168 home runs at Nagoya Kyujyo.[3] Thanks to the Lucky Zone at Koshien, all of the Central League parks were fairly small, promoting the "areal game."

But all of that changed with the completion of Tokyo Dome. The dimensions went from 87.8 meters down the lines to 100 meters, and from 120.8 meters to center to 122 meters. While the distance to center didn't increase that much, the height of the fence in center went from 2.1 meters to 4.24 meters. It was huge compared to all of the other stadiums in Japan. How was anyone going to get a home run out of that new large stadium?

The Giants of 1988 were a very powerful team. Despite the increased size of their home field, they still finished the season in second place for home runs hit with 134, Yakult hitting a total of 147 that year. But it was clear that something was seriously different this year as the league home runs dropped from 882 to 684, a difference of almost 200 home runs. (Table A)

Table A: Yearly Giants vs. Central League Home Runs
YearGiants HRAvg HR/GC-League HRAvg HR/GNote
19881341.036841.75Tokyo Dome
19921391.077250.92Lucky Zone removed[4]
19971501.117750.92Nagoya Dome

Home runs suffered greatly with the opening of Tokyo Dome. The new standard dimensions of 100 meters down the lines and 122 meters to center field have since been replicated in all new stadiums in Japan. Over the following couple of decades, Yokohama Stadium went from being one of the largest stadiums in Japan (with the highest outfield fence) to one of the smallest.

But what was the story about the home run batters? And what happened with the Giants' batters in particular?

Again looking at Table A, you can see that the first two years after the opening to Tokyo Dome that the Giants had a lower home run percentage per game than the rest of the Central League. Thereafter, however the Giants have out-stripped the rest of the league in home runs (except in 1993), and Tokyo Dome is now considered to be an easy home run hitting park. It wasn't necessary to change the ball to increase home runs (although perhaps for the Mizuno "rabbit ball" of the first half of the 2000s over-inflated home run totals). It was overcoming the psychological barrier of playing in a larger facility that did it.

In Usami Tetsuya's Pro Yakyu Records Great Reference (「プロ野球記録大鑑」) there is a table outlining the home runs hit between Korakuen Stadium and Tokyo Dome for the five years before and after the change over.[5] The story that this data set tells about both the Giants' and Nippon Ham's home run hitting abilities of the two facilities is that Tokyo Dome became an easier place to hit home runs in than Korakuen had been during the previous 5 years when compared to the other 10-12 main stadiums used.[5]

Table B: Giants and Fighters Home Ground Home Run Production Summary
StadiumYearAvg. HR/GRank*
Tokyo Dome19881.3212

* Rank covers all 12 Central and Pacific League teams for comparison.

While the high degree of home runs was not recovered soon after the Dome Era began, the Giants and Nippon Ham were both able to increase their home run production to be at or above the league average within 5 years.

After that a new type of slugger was introduced to Tokyo Dome by the name of Matsui Hideki in 1993. The art of hitting home runs was nurtured at Tokyo Dome thereafter. Tokyo Dome became the canvas for "archists" [play on words in Japanese - "artist" and one who produces "arches"]. That marked a turning point for home run hitters who weren't afraid of larger parks, and larger parks soon became the norm.

We're now in 2011 and, like before, home runs have dipped by a large percentage due to a change in the game. We've already seen the beginnings of batters who have taken up the challenge of the new unified ball, the likes of Nakamura Takeya not being phased in the least in his pursuit of the Home Run Crown. And going south to Tokyo to Yokohama you will find that there's a second year rookie by the name of Tsutsugoh Yoshitomo who, in slightly over a month with the top team, has hit the top rim of Yokohama Stadium and hit a home run to the opposite field that would clear any stadium fence in Japan. The 19 year old has hit 8 home runs (as of October 8, 2011) in just 24 games, a pace better than 1 every 4 games. The new ball is not holding him back.

If you look at what's been happening in both leagues since the All Star Break, you will also notice that this "non-flying ball" has been flying over fences at a much higher pace than the first half of the season. So it is clear that some batters are improving their game and making more solid contact. This season, and probably next season, will be tough on veterans who have relied on the springy Mizuno ball of the past, while a new breed of slugger rises. With the success of the new sluggers, so too will the "areal battle" return to NPB. It will be a different game and require a different hitting style than past sluggers. But this new slugger will arise and thrill crowds if he is allowed to. And the only way to make that happen, and to reach parity with MLB, is to stick with the new ball.

So don't give up on the new ball so soon, Mr. Watanabe. Just as Tokyo Dome was the catalyst of improving the game at the short term cost of home runs, this new ball offers the same opportunity.

[1] 日刊スペーツ 2011年 9月 27日 7版 第23498号、4ページ、「統一球で観客減」

[2] 日本語の東京ドームの Wikipedia ページ -東京ドーム

[3] 「日本プロ野球記録大百科 2004」第4版、ベースボール・マガジン社

[4] 日本語のラッキーゾーンの Wikipedia ページ -ラッキーゾーン


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This is a site about Pro Yakyu (Japanese Baseball), not about who the next player to go over to MLB is. It's a community of Pro Yakyu fans who have come together to share their knowledge and opinions with the world. It's a place to follow teams and individuals playing baseball in Japan (and Asia), and to learn about Japanese (and Asian) culture through baseball.

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Michael Westbay
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